Erin Brannigan & the living archive

Keith Gallasch

On the occasion of this week’s launch of the online archive of In Response: Dialogues with RealTime, our interview with Erin Brannigan, who initiated the 2019 exhibition, provided an opportunity to discuss contemporary archiving and Erin’s passion for it. The strength of In Response… was that it generated a sense of RealTime as a living archive, not simply a repository of historical knowledge and experience but a publication with which to actively engage. In Response… has provided an innovative model for future engagements with performing arts archives, which includes expanding and deepening the archive with new material.

Erin is Senior Lecturer in Dance in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts at the University of New South Wales, an author of books, articles about and reviews of dance, curator of screen dance festivals, a long-term writer for RealTime and an integral player in Sydney’s independent contemporary dance scene. She believes that the time is ripe to intensively archive the dance record. Erin exemplifies that drive, revealing in this interview the considerable range of her involvement in archival and related projects.

The digital archive, Erin says, has the capacity to provide easy access to dance for a wide audience. It can circulate performance caught on or made for video or film as well as writing that responds to it, thus circulating knowledge and driving legacy and, not least, much-needed support for the form. Digitisation is an invaluable tool, but in this interview, Brannigan points also to the importance of collaboration between organisations, and between artists and organisations — as exemplified in the In Response: Dialogues with RealTime exhibition in 2019, which Erin initiated — with a special role for universities and libraries. What, I wondered, were the sources of Erin’s passion for history and the archive.


Are you a preservationist by nature? Your books and other projects around dance suggest so.

I’m a bit of an historian and I do like to get to the historical heart of whatever it is that I’m working on. So, I think in my dance film book (Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image, NY, OUP 2011) and in my current work, I’m definitely tracing tendencies back to some historical point. In terms of Sydney and Australian dance I do feel an impulse to record, document and preserve because I feel strongly that it’s an area of the arts that traditionally has not been well served by documentation and preservation. So, the short answer to your question would probably be yes.


What is your current project?

I’m working on a couple of books on dance and the gallery. One is quite historical —looking at mid-20th century activity between dance and the gallery in America. The second is looking at the contemporary situation in terms of art theory. It’s attached to a project, Precarious Movements, that I’ve really delved into in the last 12 months with art institutions. It definitely has a preservation agenda, working with major art organisations here and in the UK on protocols specifically around collecting choreographic work. So, there’s definitely a through-line there.


Where does this impulse come from? Did you start out as a dancer?

I started dancing very young. I think I was three years old when I first did my dance classes, and then later dancing after school at Bodenwieser Dance Centre in Chippendale, which was really the only place to study contemporary dance at that level in Sydney. And of course, that was an amazing time. Margaret Chapple was such a wonderful, generous woman and so many of us benefited from the culture that she set up at the centre. Dean Walsh was there and a lot of other people (too many to name) who moved through that school.


When was this?

The very late-1980s. I was thinking about this recently. Margaret Chapple had all of the dance theory books in her office and though I didn’t read any of them at the time, I was very conscious that she was interested in all facets of dance — dance theory, dance history — and I think that really informed how she ran the centre. I was always kind of curious about where she had come from. She was really a bit of a ‘relic’ from the modern dance era with an embodied kind of ‘European’ modern dance technique and style, which I did find fascinating. I remember doing some of her repertoire from Gertrud Bodenwieser — things like The Blue Danube (LAUGHS). I actually loved it. I loved dancing pieces from other eras. But it wasn’t the bulk of what I did. I really loved more contemporary styles and jazz and tap. So, yes, I did study dance and lots of different types of dancing. I thought I was pretty good but I wasn’t very good at auditions and I didn’t really have the drive to make it as a professional and didn’t find the right work for me in Sydney. I wasn’t that interested in dance theatre and ended up doing a lot of commercial work and going back to university, because I was teaching more dance than actually dancing.


So you let dancing go?

I let it go and I did grieve a little bit, but I was also conscious of needing to have a bit more security, knowing that I wanted to have kids and all that.


When you first came to our attention you were writing, I think, for The City Hub, the street paper, and at some stage we came into contact and you started writing for RealTime, which became several decades of involvement. Does the impulse for preservation partly come from this, from having written for journals of record both popular and academic?

I guess so. I was at the University of Sydney in the Power Institute doing Fine Arts and Film Studies. I loved Ancient History in high school too. I guess I’ve always loved history. When I finished my BA, I did Honours with [film scholar] Laleen Jayamanne. I did a project on Australian cinema, which was also historical. I could see this gap where there weren’t many people writing about dance. Jill Sykes, of course, was writing [for The Sydney Morning Herald], Deborah Jones was writing [for The Australian], but I felt there needed to be some younger voices. So I started writing and trying to get gigs with Metro in the Sydney Morning Herald and found The Hub, which was somewhere you could kind of do what you wanted. Not being paid for it very well, of course but it was a good place to cut my teeth and there were some very good people working there at the time.

I loved the Performance Space and was hanging around there a bit. [Performance Space Director] Angharad Wynne-Jones supported me and I think my first ever article was for the Performance Space Quarterly. It was [Assistant Director] Jonathan Parsons who edited one of my early pieces.

And then, of course, everyone wanted to write for RealTime and you guys were amazing. I learned a lot very quickly once I started writing for you because I certainly wasn’t getting that sort of feedback from City Hub. I was allowed to write whatever I wanted but there wasn’t much guidance. So, that was the beginning of that mentoring relationship that I had with you and Virginia.


You began to write extensively for academic journals and for a substantial period you focused very much on dance film, to which you’ve made a considerable contribution both in Australia and beyond through ReelDance which you founded for One Extra Dance Company in 1999.

Again, there’s the issue of accessibility, which is what I loved about dance film. I could see the most recent European work through the films that these choreographers were producing — Wim Vandekeybus, Alain Platel, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, DV8… That was the only way that I could see that work. And I was very privileged to have access as a curator making programs for Sydney Opera House and other partner venues. I thought it was a really great way for Australian work to travel too and that became part of what we tried to do with ReelDance: curating programs of Australian dance on screen for international festivals. We were working our way towards distribution. We had a couple of ReelDance DVDs that were distributed through Art Films. I was always aware of that capacity for dance film to both document work but also distribute it. And I suppose advocacy for dance is another part of my interest in documentation and preservation.


How many years were you with ReelDance?

I was there from 1999 until 2008 and during that time, I wrote my PhD thesis, which turned into the book on dance film. They were very complementary, doing the research and running the festival. I was teaching as a sessional during that time but when I got my full-time job at UNSW in 2009 I had to give up the festival.

The writing I’ve done as an academic during that period and beyond, what I’ve brought to it I think is a love of thick description. Often that’s what people like best about my academic work (LAUGHS) and reviewing is where I honed that skill. I have a deep suspicion of academic writing. I think it can tend to neutralise the voice somehow. So in this part of my academic career, I’m trying to find a way back to a more creative approach — with more or less success — but it’s an aim.


Do you feel a sense of urgency about archiving? Given the projects you’re involved in such as Dancing Sydney : Mapping Movement : Performing Histories as well as the In Response: Dialogues with RealTime collaboration with UNSW Library?

I think any kind of archival project is expansive by nature. I feel like I need to get going with more of that work if I want to make any substantial contribution. So, I have been working with the library to update the moving image collection, the ReelDance collection and now we have the RealTime exhibition archive. And, of course, I have colleagues I’m working with. Caroline Wake has been working with the Performance Space on their archive. Jonathan Bollen is very involved with AusStage. I believe Meg Mumford is in discussion with Milk Crate Theatre about working with their archive materials. And there’s The Wolanski Collection, which both Caroline and Jonathan are involved in. So, there are quite a few of us working in this area, putting our heads together about how we can use the university as a platform to consolidate some of that work. As you know the UNSW Library and University Librarian Martin Borchert have been incredibly supportive, particularly Special Collections and Exhibitions curator Jackson Mann with his work on the digital collection of In Response: Dialogues with RealTime.

Rather than having a sense of urgency, it feels like the time is right. There’s interest, the artists are interested in archiving. It’s become a bit of a hot topic in the arts – how to keep performance alive in the archive. There are some very good examples in dance: William Forsyth and Siobhan Davies. And Amanda Card [Senior Lecturer, Theatre and Performance Studies, University of Sydney] and Julie-Anne Long [Senior Lecturer, Media, Music, Communications & Cultural Studies, Macquarie University], whom I work with on the Sydney Dancing project — they both bring so much, as an historian in Amanda’s case and Julie-Anne’s deep networks historically in Sydney. So it feels like the right time, the right combination of elements.


However, does the preservation impulse partly come from a fear that dance is perhaps endangered, particularly in Sydney?

Oh, I think that’s definitely a part of it. And that’s always been underwriting the Sydney Dancing project. We wanted to capture so much of the work that’s just become ‘invisiblised’ over time. It’s a drive to make dance more visible.

There’s another project I’m tinkering with called “How to look at dancing,” based on a couple of things I’ve read. One of them is a book by Justin Paton who’s a curator at AGNSW. He wrote a book called “How To Look At A Painting.” I’m very conscious that the approach to anything like that is about readerships and I don’t want to talk down to people, but I think there’s a genuine curiosity and confusion about contemporary dance. I did an interview along these lines with Michael Cathcart on the Stage Show on ABC Radio National last week. We’ll see how this little project goes: visibility and advocacy are definitely part of it.


Erin Brannigan participating in Branch Nebula installation activity; In Response: Dialogues with RealTime, photo Jackson Mann

We really appreciated your initiating In Response: Dialogues with RealTIme, a wonderful three-month exhibition with four events and performances, a printed catalogue, a material exhibition, everything documented digitally and audio interviews you conducted with the artists. This seems a very particular kind of archiving — an archival event. Rather than storing and putting away, it’s as if the archive is being interrogated at the very moment that you launch it. It’s a very interesting model. What was your intent with this kind of approach?

The main intention was to honour RealTime and your work, which has been so important to so many people in Australia and my experience in Sydney working so closely with you both and having various roles from itinerant proofer to collaborator on the Bodies of Thought: Twelve Australian Choreographers book. I think I had in my mind, particularly around the Sydney Dancing project, some kind of exhibition model that was about mapping networks and keeping the choreographic as a kind of score for the exhibition. I was trying to imagine what that might look like, along with Julie-Anne and Amanda. Then the new exhibition space at UNSW Library seemed like an opportunity to use the partnership with the university around the RealTIme archive to make an event that would ultimately draw more attention to the RealTime work that was now available. That was the intention and it became an amazing collaboration with the artists — Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters (Branch Nebula), Martin del Amo and Vicki Van Hout —who responded with such extraordinary generosity and put so much work into the exhibition.

It was a really amazing collaborative process — I could never take full credit for the output. Each room was co-curated with the artists themselves. And I learned a lot about the potential for the approach, particularly through Vicki’s room which comprised a soundscape and part of a set that she made for a couple of weeks in the lead-up to the exhibition. It was interactive during the exhibition and then there was the de-install, which was another process. Vicki was particularly educational in terms of, I think, new and exciting models for performance archive exhibitions.


Do you see your quite distinctive exhibition as archive as a model for future events?

I hope so. I’m doing some oral histories for the State Library to fill the gap there in their holdings. In our partnership with [choreographic research centre] Critical Path, we had 12 Sydney-based choreographers self-archiving. Now we’re working on a self-archiving kit for artists to help pull their work together.

And I’m hoping that maybe that partnership with the State Library might develop into more possibilities with exhibiting archives. It’s all about context and collaboration. It’s already taken quite a long time for us to get to where we are now with the Critical Path project and I think it will take more time for us to arrive at the right kind of combination and timing and post-pandemic context. Yes, I would love to do another like In Response….


In your model, the archive and the response to it are digitised and made publicly accessible. What’s the appeal of the digital preservation?

Stability, I guess. In a lot of the research work that I do I depend upon stable artefacts that I can access. I visited the Robert Rauschenberg archive in New York to see how many resources a visual artist of that stature has in terms of staff and space. Much of his work has been digitised and is available readily online, which makes it easy for people to write about it, which means it’s written about more, which means it circulates more. I can see the power of the archive in terms of driving the legacy of particular artists. I think someone like Yvonne Rainer was always very conscious of that. Marcel Duchamp was self-archiving from the beginning. I think dancers could all be smarter about setting up their legacies. Amanda Card feels very strongly about this, about setting the record straight.


If you’re watching dance archivally, of course, it’s not the same as seeing the original but it can still convey quite a lot.

Yes. Pina Bausch had basically put a freeze on any documentation of her work circulating. After she died it was just amazing to see her reputation explode internationally with the showing of the Wim Wenders’ film Pina [2011].

It’s really something that performance needs to take up; the visual arts has really had the monopoly on catalogues and retrospectives. It’s something we can learn from.


Are there any limitations involved in digital preservation?

Yes, of course. That’s really what’s stopped performance taking it up. There’s always something you will never capture and that’s also the strength of performance, that it can’t be locked down and put in a cupboard. So, definitely there are limits but I just think it’s important that we remember our performing artists. It’s cultural memory that RealTime has played such an important role in. Lee and Mirabelle said that much of their work has only really ever been written about in RealTime. And that’s extraordinary for artists of their stature. So, thank god for RealTime having done its job of preserving.


Thanks to you, Erin, for In Response: Dialogues with RealTime and for working on so many fronts to support, preserve and promote performance.

Dr Erin Brannigan is a Senior Lecturer in Dance in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts and works in the fields of dance and film as an academic and curator. She was the founding Director of ReelDance (1999-2008) and has curated dance screen programs and exhibitions for Sydney Festival 2008, Melbourne International Arts Festival 2003 and international dance screen festivals. She wrote on dance for RealTime 1997-2019. Publications include: Moving Across Disciplines: Dance in the Twenty-First Century (Sydney: Currency House, 2010), Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) and co-editor with Virginia Baxter, Bodies of Thought: 12 Australian Choreographers, (Kent Town, SA; RealTime Wakefield Press, 2014). She has published articles in Performance Philosophy, Dance Research Journal, The International Journal of Screendance, Senses of Cinema, Performance Paradigm, Runway, Broadsheet, Writings on Dance, Choreologia (Japan), Oxford Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics (2nd Ed), Brolga and International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media.

Top image: Erin Brannigan, launch of In Response: Dialogues with RealTime, UNSW Library, photo Jackson Mann

27 August 2020